Michigan and Mother Nature do not go hand in hand. A few years back, the two-mile speedway had its Sprint Cup race postponed not once but twice due to persistent summer rain showers. This year, the track saw its 200-lapper shortened, put out of its misery with 138 laps complete, after four red flags for downpours. The last thunderstorm flooded parts of the speedway, forcing the track to clear out the grandstands while setting up a makeshift Victory Lane ceremony for winner Kurt Busch.
The end result wasn’t pretty, stoppages stripping the race of much of its rhythm and intrigue. It didn’t help Kevin Harvick dominated, pulling away for long stretches, when things did get going to the point no one else was able to challenge. If it weren’t for a broken valve stem, cutting the air out of one of Harvick’s tires, we’d be talking about the No. 4 car taking the field to task once again.
Could NASCAR have made it better? I think postponing the race, which is what many were calling for, was the wrong call. The forecast called for “pop-up” showers and there was no 100 percent guarantee they would keep popping up at the wrong time. That’s a whole lot different than trying to wait out a “wall” of precipitation that was falling for several hours at a time. In between the rain were long stretches of sunshine; push the race back until Monday and angry ticket-paying fans would remember that, wondering why they didn’t try harder. Yes, the Nielsen TV ratings will suffer but so would track attendance in future years if fans who couldn’t go Monday felt the race should have been run a longer distance.
Sunday reminded me of a rain-delayed, regular-season baseball game where the end-goal is simply just to “finish.” The problem is, there’s 162 of those for each team; in NASCAR, just 26 regular-season races before the Chase make the impact of a throwaway event that much greater. I understand the disappointment surrounding that. But it’s hard enough for the sport to fix its rules package; I don’t see them finding a way to control Mother Nature anytime soon.
Through The Gears we go…
FIRST GEAR: Busch Battles Back
Kurt Busch, months off a three-race suspension for domestic violence accusations, showcased some growing maturity at Michigan. Friday, his No. 41 Chevy was torn to shreds, a practice crash forcing out a backup car in a move that would have left Busch miserable in recent years. Instead? He put his trust in crew chief Tony Gibson the backup car would be just as good, if not better.
It certainly helps when Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick is rolling out a winning setup. But the bottom line is Busch kept his composure, believed in himself and was in position to capitalize when Harvick’s day went south before the rains came.
“It was a fantastic group effort,” the driver said. “That shows you the depth of Stewart-Haas Racing. It gives every crew member that much more confidence to know that we’re doing things right.”
Busch, who now has two wins, is guaranteed a spot in the Chase during a year where some wondered if he’d even end up with a ride. If not for a flimsy caution at Fontana, combined with a few big breaks at Bristol, he’d be tied with Jimmie Johnson atop the season victory list. Harvick is the top title contender at SHR but it’s days like these that remind you not to count Busch out.
SECOND GEAR: Kyle’s Rollercoaster Weekend
It was a weird weekend for the Busch brothers, bookending the field at Michigan as younger Kyle wound up dead last. The victim of perhaps NASCAR pushing a restart, running the cars as rain was falling, Busch hit a slick spot off turn 4, lost control and pounded the wall with his No. 18 M&M’s Toyota. The 43rd-place finish cost him dearly in the points, leaving him 173 behind 30th-place Justin Allgaier with 11 races remaining. That means Busch needs to gain 16 points a race, possible but not no longer probable, as his comeback bid has been bit by bad luck.
It was a shocking turnaround just a day after Busch reached Victory Lane in NASCAR’s XFINITY Series. He did it in his first start, impressive considering the No. 54 Toyota over there has not been as strong as recent years. That alone tells you Busch’s talent is pushing 100 percent; unfortunately, he needs factors outside his control to fall in place with it. So far, not so good on that front, as two DNFs (add last month’s Dover wreck) are starting to cloud his 2015 Chase potential.
THIRD GEAR: Larson’s Gamble Gone Wrong
Perhaps the only drama, aside from Harvick’s flat tire Sunday, concerned Kyle Larson’s failed bid for victory. Larson’s crew chief, Chris Heroy kept the No. 42 Chevrolet on track after Harvick’s incident, hoping against hope rain they knew was coming would happen before the car ran out of fuel. In the end, they came up three laps short, a green-flag stop leaving them 17th and oh-so-close to a surprise performance that would have launched them right into the Chase.
“Hey, I applaud my guys for trying,” Larson said. “We are pretty deep in points so we have to take risks like that.”
Here’s the cool part for Larson; that’s not necessarily true. He’s pulled within 39 points of a fading Ryan Newman and is 40 behind B-level Aric Almirola for a Chase spot. It’s certainly conceivable, considering the strength of the equipment behind him, the sophomore could make a run over the final 11 races. I wouldn’t feel too comfortable if I was either of those two men, especially as Clint Bowyer has closed in as well (just 12 and 13 points back of the pair, respectively).
FOURTH GEAR: Rules Package, Come Quickly
The first three laps at Michigan featured three on-track passes for the lead. After that? Zilch. Nada. Nothing. The rest of the 17 lead changes came as a result of green-flag pit strategy, a strong bottom groove making even restarts easy for the leader to stay out front.
Rumors persist NASCAR is debuting a new rules package, reducing downforce for these cars, as early as Kentucky next month. We should hear something over this coming week, one of the sport’s few “off weekends” for Sprint Cup racing until November. Owners keep complaining about the cost of new rules, but with what we saw Sunday? Getting new cars out there isn’t a recommendation – it’s a necessity. Follow-the-leader, aerodynamic racing is out of control to the point fans will walk away if it persists much longer.
Kevin Harvick’s 29th-place finish was just his second outside the top 10 all season. It’s also the second straight week someone has suffered from a broken valve stem. Paul Menard had the same issue at Pocono. In both cases, the drivers kept from wrecking but it’s a problem to keep an eye on as the pressure of pit stops – one of the few areas you can gain track position easily – keep increasing… Sunday was a major step forward for Carl Edwards’ program. Leading 41 laps, the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota ended up 12th and was generally a top-5 car most of the race. The key has been qualifying; Edwards has started top 10 in each of the last five events, including his winning Coca-Cola 600 performance… Roush Fenway Racing must be ready to throw its hands up in frustration. While Trevor Bayne got lucky, pit strategy catapulting him to a season-high ninth place, their one Chase hopeful, Greg Biffle, ran an awful 36th. Two of his three worst finishes this season have come at RFR’s former strongholds, here and at sister two-mile track Fontana. When underfunded drivers like Cole Whitt, Josh Wise and Landon Cassill are blowing by you at this type of track, that’s a problem.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.